April 26, 2013

Delving into stem cell research

Masayo Takahashi, Project Leader

Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology

What do you do at RIKEN?

As the project leader at the RIKEN Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration, I coordinate research and clinical projects with a specific focus on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell research.

What made you decide to become a doctor and researcher?

I remember reading a biography of Marie Curie when I was a child and I was greatly inspired by it. I set myself the goal of becoming a physician-scientist to fulfill my dream of working in both a clinical and research environment.

What is a physician-scientist?

It is someone who is both a clinical doctor and a researcher, and today this role is a popular concept in the US. This role gives many opportunities for clinicians to develop research skills and it is a trend I hope will gain momentum here in Japan.

The reading of the characters in your name means “govern the generation”—it’s a very special name with a sense of power attached to its meaning. Can you tell us more about it?

The Chinese character for ‘masa’ in my name comes from my grandfather. Typically in girls’ names, masa is written with a different Chinese character which means “Japanese elegance”, while mine means “to govern”. My name may sound more powerful in its meaning, but I must say I rather like it.

Why did you join RIKEN?

Upon completion of my appointment at Kyoto University Hospital, I was looking for a position that would give me opportunities to develop professionally and personally. RIKEN Kobe Institute ticked all the boxes, so it was a natural choice for me.

What do you like about working at RIKEN?

Working at RIKEN gives me the flexibility to undertake both research and clinical work. Two years after I started my research at RIKEN, President Noyori introduced the idea of a ‘baton zone’—a concept in which basic research meets applied research. The ‘baton zone’ is unique to RIKEN and allows researchers to explore the possibilities of real-life applications as well as providing opportunities for science and business to work in partnership on efficient technology transfer. The baton zone created a unique environment in which I was able to realize my dream to carry out translational research.

Please tell us about your research and other work at RIKEN.

My main research focuses on iPS cells. Our lab aims to perform clinical trials, with our first trial using iPS cells on six patients to commence soon. If the results are positive, we hope to go on to larger scale clinical trials.

I have also set up a company as part of the RIKEN Venture Systems—an initiative of the RIKEN Collaborations Division and a part of RIKEN’s ‘baton zone’ concept. I look forward to the results I may achieve from this.

Why were you drawn to iPS research?

I was first attracted to stem cell research early in my career, when I was at the Salk Institute in San Diego 15 years ago, where I learned about neural stem cells—a form of somatic stem cell. After that, I carried out retinal cell transplantation therapy with a certain type of stem cell. However, I soon discovered that somatic cells are not suitable to be donor cells as they do not proliferate very well. Subsequently, I moved on to embryonic stem (ES) cells and, while working at the Kyoto University Hospital, I collaborated with Yoshiki Sasai, who is also based at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, Kobe Institute. While we achieved success some three years later by demonstrating the use of primate ES for treatment of retinal cell conditions, we were hesitant to apply its use on humans as it requires immunosuppression. However, shortly after, to my greatest excitement, the technology of iPS emerged. I jumped at the opportunity and approached Shinya Yamanaka’s lab immediately to obtain samples of these cells.

Does the high cost of producing iPS pose a potential barrier?

Yes, I must admit the high production cost is indeed an issue we have to deal with. At present, the actual cost of creating cells that are suitable for treatment is less than 1 million yen, but the cost due to regulations amounts to about seven times that. However, if we can automate the process, we would be able to reduce the cost significantly.

What is your approach to research at RIKEN?

I’m a person who is always thinking about five or ten years into the future. Whenever I have a discussion with others in the field, I often make suggestions for new ideas—to which many will tell me they are impossible. But I think it is of the utmost importance to look beyond our current technology and achievements and to strive for something even bigger and more ambitious.

I’d like to ask you about the so-called Moriguchi incident. The day after the announcement of Shinya Yamanaka’s Nobel Prize, there was a Japanese researcher who claimed he had treated patients with iPS cells, though it was eventually proven to be untrue. What is your take on this?

I first heard about it when a reporter approached me to make a comment. I took it at face value initially, as I certainly did think Harvard is very capable of doing it first. However, in my opinion, there is too much focus on who’s first and who’s not. I would rather we all work towards the common goal of achieving a breakthrough in human stem cell research and application.

Why do you think the reporter believed the story?

Perhaps he didn’t fully understand the topic of regenerative medicine. Fortunately, he is a rare example. Every three months, I give a briefing to the mass media, and I am pleased to say that all the journalists who have attended the events so far are very well-informed and educated in this area of research.

As a female principal investigator at RIKEN, have you encountered any difficulties?

Not at all—the working environment here is very conducive to women’s participation and career advancement. Unlike working at a hospital, I have very regular hours. This allows me to go home at a reasonable time. RIKEN also provides on-site childcare facilities for its researchers and office staff. In addition, RIKEN promotes many programs on gender equality.

All the success you have had must come with much hard work. What do you do to unwind?

I love movies and music. I go to temples very often too, a habit I cultivated back when I was living in Kyoto. However, in all honesty, I admit I do have retinal regeneration racing through my mind 24 hours a day.

What is your hope and vision for the future in terms of retinal regeneration?

I hope to develop a comprehensive research center for retinal degenerative disease. Currently, we already have a platform in place that focuses on a variety of areas; from genetic diagnosis to counseling and treatment. We could definitely work towards a seamless incorporation of research with clinical work. A new center such as this would bring us a step closer to making regenerative medicine a reality and would offer an accessible service not only to people in Kobe, but also to people all over Japan and around the world.